Plain insanity

Why build houses in areas liable to flooding when there's plenty of other land to meet the nation's housing needs? Nick Reeves, executive director of CIWEM, makes the case for biting the bullet of land reform

The launch last March of Securing the Future, the government’s strategy for sustainable development, was a landmark event that was virtually ignored by the media. Not even the presence of Tony Blair, and some of his cabinet ‘heavyweights’ could excite the normally excitable press. Which is a pity, because the prime minister made some very clear and unambiguous statements about the need to avoid “models of development which are simply unsustainable”, and said that “sustainable development, across the UK, is not an option – it’s a necessity”. In effect Tony Blair promised that future development would only take place within environmental limits and that there would be cross-departmental commitment to this. Great stuff – and it is in the strategy document too! Well, so you’d think…

And yet, in the meantime, we have the government’s flagship Sustainable Communities Plan, under which thousands of new homes will be built either on or very near floodplain. A plan less sustainable you could hardly imagine, since it is set to exceed environmental limits. And, perversely, many of these homes will be built in areas of the south-east of England where there are also problems of water scarcity – made worse by growing demand for water on tap.

Former ministers Keith Hill MP (housing) and Lord Rooker (regeneration) have said the south-east of England has yet to realise its full economic potential and that new housing is essential for the economic growth and regeneration of the region. They are forgetting that London and its hinterlands have almost certainly exceeded their environmental limits, proving that government priorities are not environmental at all, but economic.

Few can deny that there is indeed a housing crisis. A lack of affordable housing to meet the needs of low-paid key workers such as nurses, teachers, police officers, etc. is a serious problem (though, personally, I can’t help wondering why key workers should be low-paid in the first place; if such people are essential to society, why is this not recognised with better pay and conditions that would allow them to participate in the housing market?). But why endanger the lives and property of people by building on land at risk of flooding? It is both unnecessary and daft. 10% of the population of England and Wales already live in fear of flooding. Why spend millions more on techno-fix flood defence schemes when we can build elsewhere?

Around 70% of the land in this country is owned by 0.6% of the population. Put into

context, this means that just 158,000 families own 41 million acres of land while 24 million families live on four million acres. Much of this land does not appear on the land register and we have no idea of its condition or status. This means that there is, potentially, plenty of land available for housing development; the notion of land scarcity is a myth. If this or any other government is serious about creating sustainable and equitable communities, and about securing the future of people now and in the future, it is time to have a public debate on land reform, with changes in planning law that respect environmental limits and encourage the redistribution of land.

The UK’s population has doubled since the 1950s and will continue to grow to unsustainable levels in parts of the UK. High-density housing on or near floodplain – is not the answer when alternative solutions are possible. But such alternatives would mean large tracts of private and publicly-owned land being given up for housing, begging the question: is any government brave enough to put land reform on the political agenda? I doubt it – though, as I write, the government is considering a green light to new development on green belt in one of the four growth areas designated by deputy PM John Prescott, demonstrating that ministers are prepared to take on the green lobby at least.

Present housing shortages have been artificially created through barmy planning laws and outmoded views on land ownership which are no longer relevant in one of the world’s most densely populated countries. Consequently, a fall in housing supply is crippling local economies, especially in small communities. It is wrong that people should be forced to move away from the places where they grew up, and where they would like to raise their children. Shops, pubs and schools suffer and local businesses lose a pool of labour while planning applications for rural housing are dismissed out of hand, regardless of local demand – and all because of short-sighted national and regional planning policies. The social engineering of successive governments has led to soaring house prices and plans to build on land at risk of flooding.

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